The Loch Ness Project and the pre-salvage survey of 1981

This account is written by Adrian Shine, author and designer of the Loch Ness Project

Wellington Survey 1981

In 1980, as part of a university funded research charter, the Heriot Watt Remote Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV) ANGUS 002 was brought to Loch Ness for tests with a new navigational system. In the last days of tests, the Wellington wreck promised to be a good target for the system to navigate around. The opportunity could then be taken to survey the condition of the aircraft in detail. In the event, although the Wellington was found, weather conditions forced the withdrawal of the ROV.   

Robin Holmes’ plan for 1981 was to have been based upon the Royal Navy’s Fleet Clearance Diving Team which had offered assistance. However, they required a support ship with an onboard decompression chamber. This would have to be funded and an application for sponsorship failed. The Navy then offered to bring their own dive support vessel, and all seemed well for a survey to commence at the beginning of June. Sadly, on 20th May, Holmes was told that the operation was cancelled. At this point, as an alternative to deep divers, Oceanics Ltd. offered the use of their small ROV Sea Pup. A number of small companies had already committed gear to the diving operation. Osprey Electronics would bring underwater video equipment and Underwater Marine Equipment Ltd (UMEL) would provide high quality still cameras. There was still no surface support vessel.

‘And all for the want of a horseshoe nail’

Robin Holmes describes in One of our Aircraft, how I, as leader of the Loch Ness and Morar Project rang him ‘out of the blue’ with the offer of the research vessel John Murray. In fact UMEL had been supporting our work at Loch Morar with underwater cameras since 1976 and it was Mike Borrow of that company who rang me on 29th May and told me of the predicament.

At the time our programme included Loch Morar as well as Loch Ness and I had initiated our own system for water-borne work. Our plans were to complete the construction of a sonar search vessel on the beach of our base camp on the south east shore of Loch Ness. This used a catamaran system based upon professionally built inflatable sponsons that we had commissioned. These sponsons were the key parts of our system which used two sizes for easy transport between the two lochs and where decks and superstructures were built of plywood for different purposes.

We built the 12m long John Murray, on a beach from ’flat-pack’ sections.  Mounted with a Furuno scanning sonar, its purpose was to run silent patrols along the length of the loch. The forward cabin caught the wind to sail the vessel straight down wind instead of wallowing broadside like conventional craft when the engine was turned off.  Critically the design permitted a quite large area of aft deck for launching and lowering equipment. I think this was why Robin Holmes always thought of our  vessel as a ‘pontoon’. So, we thought we could manage Sea Pup and its generator. We also used our smaller 5.5 m sponson based Yellow Boat in support.

We had only just completed the construction as the operation commenced on 13th July. Sea Pup arrived the next day. That year my crew members came from a wide variety of sources including an Operation Drake contingent and Venture Scouts. Our Project volunteers were now supplemented by elements of 60 Squadron Royal Corps of Transport under Lt. Chambers. It was they who with over half a kilometre of rope and heavy improvised anchors, succeeded in establishing a mooring over the Wellington which we had located by sonar. The vicissitudes of ‘gremlin’ attacks on the Sea Pup and other equipment during the first week are well described in One of our Aircraft, but I particularly remember the unlucky Friday when Sea Pup got stuck on the wreck and an afternoon spent pulling at different angles in an attempt to free the umbilical cable which, of course, also  tethered John Murray to the bottom.  In the end, we disconnected the top end of the umbilical from the control equipment and headed for the shore in Yellow Boat. The cable was just long enough to reach the beach and I buried the polythene shrouded termination beneath a bush. Fortunately, the next day, Sea Pup was retrieved, and the Wellington relocated before Robin Holmes returned from the weekend.

The next week went well technically, but the detailed survey revealed a disappointing amount of damage since Holmes first saw the Wellington in 1978. The centre section of the fuselage had been ripped open and some fittings removed. This damage had to be taken into account in the plans for eventual salvage in 1985.

I have a vivid memory of a fitting and poignant finale to the survey. As we lifted the last anchors and turned away, a whole flight of Vulcan bombers in line ahead, passed majestically over our heads and along the loch.

Post Script

In later years, I designed the exhibition at the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit and in 2006 with the assistance of Robin Holmes, added the Wellington exhibit which consists of panel work, a case with models showing the scale of the challenge, some relics from the recovery and a video. This brief video details the features surveyed with the restored portions at Brooklands. The original John Murray is in retirement as the main feature of the fifth area of the exhibition. It is a privilege to have been small part of the story.    

 Adrian Shine,
Loch Ness Project

%d bloggers like this: